By the mid-19th century, Melton was dominated by large-scale pastoral operations that were producing huge numbers of sheep for the expanding wool industry.
The majority of land in the Port Phillip area (which became Victoria in 1851) was owned by just four men: William John Turner Clarke, Simon Staughton and the Chirnside brothers, Andrew and Thomas. The squatters’ monopoly caused deep resentment and, eventually, changes to the laws relating to land ownership were passed. These vast pastoral runs started to be broken up, allowing smaller farming enterprises to emerge and diversifying the agricultural profile of the district.
The discovery of gold in Victoria was another major turning point in this period. From the early 1850s, thousands of people flooded towards the diggings in the hope of striking it rich. The demand for food and supplies on the goldfields encouraged the growth of local agricultural industries, including dairy products, vegetables, poultry and pigs. Farmers sold their produce to travellers on the road or transported it themselves to the goldfields.
Situated on the roadway between Melbourne and gold towns such as Ballarat, Bendigo and Castlemaine, Melton responded to the huge demand for sustenance and amenities for the thousands of men, women and children passing through. Wayside inns and hotels began to spring up along the road to accommodate travellers, as well as care for their livestock and wagons.
Beattys Road, which was first called Ballarat Road, was established in 1851 as a route to the Ballarat goldfields. The Rockbank Inn was constructed there, offering road-weary fortune-seekers a place of respite. Author, barrister and gold miner William Kelly visited the hotel in 1854 and was impressed by the resident talking magpie, who was reputed to provide a good imitation of ‘drunken diggers’. The Diggers Rest Hotel, built in 1854, was another wayside hotel constructed at Mount Alexander Road (now the Calder Highway).
The bluestone ruins of the original Rockbank Inn, stables and storerooms have been retained in a public park beside Kororoit Creek, and the Diggers Rest Hotel is now recognised by the City of Melton as a significant heritage site. The Golden Fleece and Mac’s Hotels are names retained from other popular nineteenth-century pubs that still trade successfully in Melton today, although neither operate in their original buildings.
Melton has a long and celebrated history of horse breeding and training, with horses being a defining part of the district’s identity.
Read more about the history of horses in Melton
Horse races were first organised in the area by Rockbank farmer William Keating. Some of the first Melton Race Club meetings were held on the Exford Estate and other early races and sports meetings were held in the vicinity of the current-day Melton golf course.
Rockbank squatter and pioneer of the Victorian horse racing industry, William Cross Yuille, was one of the earliest importers of stud racehorses in the district. In 1878 he compiled the first Australian Stud Book, a record of breeding lines that helps to ensure the integrity of thoroughbred breeding to this day. Another major figure was Ernest Clarke, who established the Melton Stud in 1902. Clarke’s stallion, The Welkin, sired many winners, his most celebrated being the champion Gloaming who won 57 out of his 67 starts.
By the early 1960s, influential local breeders such as Ken Cox of Stockwell were making their mark on Australia’s thoroughbred industry. Other studs, too, were running successful businesses, and by 1985 the shire council had adopted the slogan ‘The Heart of Thoroughbred Country’.
Numerous trotting tracks were established on the flat plains of the district, with Melton becoming a centre for the harness racing industry. In 1988, Melton’s champion reinsman Gavin Lang won his 176th race of the season, claiming the national harness racing record for the most wins in a single season. The world-class harness racing facility Tabcorp Park was opened in Melton in 2009.
Any discussion of horses in the Melton district should include the vital transport and agricultural labour provided by draught horses in the early period of European settlement. Even today, these majestic animals remain a fixture in the area, such as at the Haylands Clydesdale Stud, a third generation Clydesdale breeder in Diggers Rest.
The municipality’s continuing influence in many facets of horse breeding and racing is a testament to the deep heritage and passion for horses that has been nurtured by the Melton community for more than 150 years.
Completed in 1859 using local sandstone quarried onsite, the Djerriwarrh Bridge is another reminder of the impact that the goldrush had on the landscape and the people of Melton. Before its construction, travellers made the dangerous crossing over the Djerriwarrh Creek at their peril. John Chandler recorded his experience of crossing with a dray in 1851:
… tied a rope to the back of the dray, and all hands hung on with all their might to keep the dray from overpowering the horse. We saw several carts that had come to grief, quite smashed at the bottom of the hill.
The bridge provided a safer crossing for travellers, at least until 1889 when the Melbourne to Ballarat railway line was established.
As the ready supply of alluvial gold in the area’s waterways began to dwindle by the mid-1850s, mining moved underground and the floods of travellers passing through began to decline. Melton, nevertheless, remained firmly on a path of growth and development.